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Tucked away in the Sackler Wing galleries at the top of the Royal Academy, the Mexico: A Revolution in Art exhibition is a strange collection of painting, prints and most importantly photographs spanning a tumultuous, exciting and pivotal time in Mexican history.

On entering the exhibition one is immediately struck by the bare grey and dimly lit settings. A stark contrast to previous misconceptions of a bright and colourful country, this exhibition immediately takes on a more somber and serious tone, with the first room immediately highlighting the harsh realities of revolution, with the works of Manuel Ramos and Walter H. Horne. Their photographs capture in vivid, graphic detail the impact of war on Mexico. Horne’s ‘Execution’ series calmly lay out the physical casualties of revolution, bodies left hanging or shot in rural countryside contrast sharply with the traditional oil portrait paintings in this room but appear to reunite in theme with the prints of Jose Guadalupe Posada, such as ‘Little Calvera Gomez’ displayed on the opposing side of the wall. Both demonstrate not only the intense political unrest but also the fascination with death and martyrdom in Mexico. These photographs were in fact so popular at the time that many were made into postcards for American troops stationed along the border to collect.

Walter H. Horne, Execution in Mexico

Jose Guadalupe Posada, Little Calvera Gomez

The second room appears almost entirely dedicated to painting, bar the small selection of photography by Edward Weston and Tina Modotti on one short wall. Weston travelled to Mexico in 1923 with his then lover Tina Modotti. Becoming enraptured by the country, Weston and Modotti together contributed to creating a modern approach to photography in Mexico. No longer concerned with portraying picturesque Mexican scenery, Weston focused on the everyday objects of Mexican life. This is demonstrated in his Ollas photographs, ‘Tres ollas de Oaxaca’ and ‘Ollas de Oaxaca.’ Here simple, traditional clay pots are given a new importance.

Edward Weston, Tres ollas de Oaxaca

Edward Weston, Ollas de Oaxaca

This is also demonstrated in Weston’s photograph ‘Excusado’ of 1926. This almost comical work does not immediately appear to the viewer as a toilet, as it appears incredibly grand and austere, with the cool, white porcelain of the toilet mesmerizing the visitors’ gaze. However Weston’s works appear to be sadly eclipsed by the larger and well-known paintings of Diego Rivera in this room, which I feel detracts away from the simplistic beauty of these photographs.

Edward Weston, Excusado of 1926

The third and penultimate room however is largely dedicated to photography, celebrating the works of Bresson, Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Agustin Jimenez to name but a few. Bresson’s work immediately catches the visitors’ eye upon entering this room, most notably his harrowing image of 1934, ‘Striking Worker Murdered.’ This raw and unsettling image demonstrates Bresson’s bravery in depicting the brutality of Mexico at the time. Taken the same year that Bresson arrived in the country, at the young age of twenty-five, the work carries an essence of martyrdom, with the strikers outstretched arm reminiscent of Jacques Louis David’s oil painting ‘The Death of Marat.’

Henri Cartier Bresson, Striking Worker Murdered, 1934

Bravo’s images, which sit alongside Bresson’s in this room, depict everyday life for the Mexican worker, most significantly in his photograph ‘Furnace Men’ of 1935. This image appears to be an almost futuristic portrait, with the two men covered in protective clothing, concealing their faces, they conjure an image of explorers or spacemen, a world away from the bitter truths and economic climate of the country at the time.

The other photographer who stands out in this room is the work of Jimenez. A talented Mexican photographer who emerged in the 20’s, Jimenez created poignant images, creating film still like effects. This is not surprising, as he worked closely with the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein throughout his career. The repetition in his photographs entitled ‘Explosion’ and ‘Dustpans’ for example, are hypnotically condensed and yet powerful in what they are trying to convey.

Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Furnace Men, 1935

On leaving the exhibition the works of photographers Lola Bravo and Robert Capa sit alongside the bold and abstract oils of Josef Albers. Although one might argue this detracts from the photographs, they are so intense and emotionally raw in themselves that they hold their own in this room very well. Bravo’s image entitled ‘Indifference’ of 1940 demonstrates her highly active relationship with the cultural life of Mexico. Its title combined with the disturbing image of the old woman bound and appearing in pain whilst society passes by, highlight the plight of the everyday Mexican.

Lastly Capa’s photograph ‘First Fatality on the Election Day’ is a superbly well-composed image. The viewers eyes are immediately drawn into the centre of the image where the limp and lifeless body of a man lays, and are then drawn back out of the image by the faces of men in the crow surrounding him. Reverberating around the body like a ripple on water, these men’s eyes stare directly out onto the viewer, forcing us to confront the incredibly dark subject of the image.

Lola Bravo, Indifference, 1940

Robert Capa, First Fatality on the Election Day, 1940

This exhibition although slightly weak in its content of paintings, and amount of works, holds a brilliant selection of photographic works by a whole range of artists influenced by Mexico and its revolution.

Originally written for PhotoDemocracy Blog.

29th August 2013

Walking into the Miles Aldridge exhibition at the Embankment Galleries in Somerset House, one is immediately struck by the clean and bright candy colours that cover each wall in the exhibition. These eye-popping shades completely encapsulate the Aldridge’s works and compliment the framing of his photographs perfectly, making this basement exhibition space surprisingly light.  Filled with vitrines of Aldridge’s polaroid’s, sketches and magazine covers, however it is, of course, the photography that really brings this exhibition alive

British born Aldridge studied Illustration at Saint Martins, moving briefly into directing music videos and experimenting with the idea of film, before eventually making the transition into photography during the 90’s. It was this experience, combined with the influences of his father, Alan Aldridge’s, graphic bright illustrations and designs, that lead Miles to create highly stylized, colourful and powerful images. Drawing inspiration from classic film directors, cinematography and Old Master paintings, Aldridge fuses together mesmerizing scenes for his images. On entering, visitors eyes are immediately drawn to ‘Pure Wonder #1’ in the centre of the main room, the shimmering black caviar that balances delicately on the models fingers are brilliantly contrasted by her sharp, fluorescent pink nails and porcelain skin.

Pure Wonder #1, 2005

Moving past this photo, the exhibition moves into focus on Aldridge’s painterly and cinematic influences. The photograph of model Lily Cole dressed in traditional costume, entitled ‘Like a Painting #1,’ reminds us of Dutch Renaissance portraits. With her red stylized hair, floral dress and foliage background reminiscent  of Botticelli’s La Primavera, and is in many respects one of the darkest works in this exhibition, the models quizzical expression emanates to the viewer a foreboding undercurrent theme to the image.

Like Painting#1, 2005

Alongside this work other images exploring the cinematic influences of Aldridge’s photographs such as ‘Actress # 6’ and the series ‘Semi Detached,’ demonstrate not only the searing colour of all his photos but contrast eloquently the differing facial expression Aldridge manages to capture. The Actress appears to be within her own explosive scene and yet completely silent to the viewer, reminiscent of a Fellini film still. This idea of explosion and breaking is a continuous theme within Aldridge’s works and nowhere better demonstrated than in the promotional photograph of the exhibition entitled ‘I Only Want You To Love Me #1.’ Whilst the model of ‘Semi Detached’ remains blank and expressionless, like many of Aldridge’s images she appears indifferent to her surroundings, deep in thought.

Actress#6, 2012

Semi-Detached #3, 2012

Lastly the exhibition comes to a climatic end on entering what I would like to call the ‘altar of Aldridge.’ This dim lit room bathed in a sea of raspberry pink is illuminated with Aldridge’s Immaculee series of 2007. The electric blues and gold’s of the models shawl and crown combined with her doll like, vacant expression, make these photographs, I feel the most haunting and powerful of the entire exhibition. Thus by using colours and imagery inspired by richly painted Old Master works, such as Cranach and the portraits of Durer, Aldridge creates a new, modern day Madonna.

Immaculee #3, 2007

This exhibition I feel perfectly encapsulates Aldridge’s work. The tension between decadent beauty and the models own expressions of hopelessness makes the viewer question the very essence of everyday society, our consumerist expectations and human flaws.

Originally written for PhotoDemocracy Blog.